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Summer in Whistler begins at the lake

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The River of Golden Dreams is an idyllic waterway for a quiet paddle ... unless you find yourself in the middle of GoFest. riverofgoldendreams.com photo

The River of Golden Dreams is an idyllic waterway for a quiet paddle … unless you find yourself in the middle of Whistler’s annual Go Fest and the Great Snow-Earth-Water Race. riverofgoldendreams.com photo

A quiet meander down the River of Golden Dreams, I’d promised my wife. After 36 hours of skiing, cycling, trail running, stand-up paddle boarding, dancing, eating and drinking, this would be a relaxing canoe cruise in the sunshine, a chance to mellow ourselves from weekend warriors to weekend wanderers.

It didn’t work out that way.

We’d come for Whistler’s Great Outdoors Festival, aka GO Fest. Held on the Victoria Day long weekend, GO Fest was the chance to cram an entire Whistler summer of activities into four days. A packed schedule had offered everything from fly-fishing to disc golf, river rafting to yoga, and much in between that involved wearing a silly costume.

By Sunday, my legs were aching from Saturday-night’s AlpenGlow Fun Run, a six-kilometre jog around Lost Lake, while wearing glow sticks. Or they might have ached from skiing Blackcomb’s Seventh Heaven all day; or from jumping up and down to The Sheepdogs during Friday night’s concert in the village.

The River of Golden Dreams connects Alta Lake and Green Lake. In some places the river is little wider than a canoe.

The River of Golden Dreams connects Alta Lake and Green Lake. riverofgoldendreams.com photo

Cycling Whistler’s Valley Trail on Sunday morning, we stopped at Lakeside Park where we met Eric White of Backroads Whistler. When he told us about paddling the River of Golden Dreams, the timing seemed perfect: No pressure to perform; tranquility now. Backroads Whistler even picks you up at the end of the two- to three-hour paddle.

“People were coming here for the lakes long before the skiing,” Eric pointed out. “I think you’ll really enjoy it.”

To get our sea legs we warmed up with a stand-up paddle boarding session. Stand-up paddle boarding, or SUP, has taken off in recent years and it’s easy to see why. Not unlike snowshoeing, SUP offers a short learning curve and gets you closer to the elements. It can be as relaxing or as strenuous as you want. Eric gave us a quick tutorial on the dock and we were off.

Pasty Englishman attempts balance feat on stand-up paddle board!

Pasty Englishman attempts balance feat on stand-up paddle board!

The Kahuna boards designed by Whistler local, Steve Legge, were exceptionally stable, despite my initial fears of falling. (The lake ice broke just a month before!) It only took a couple of lengths between Lakeside’s docks for it to begin to feel like a core workout.

Now acclimatized to the occasional gusts picking up on Alta Lake, we paddled to shore for a new vessel.

Backroads offers kayaks and double kayaks but we opted for a two-person canoe. The canoe requires smooth communication between paddlers to navigate the notoriously tight corners of the River of Golden Dreams.

It’s also known as “The Divorce Boat,” according to Eric.

“We’ve only been married 23 years, what could possibly go wrong?” I asked my wife.

The River of Golden Dreams connects Alta Lake with Green Lake about three kilometres north. Because of its stubborn refusal to follow a straight line, the river’s full length is closer to five kilometres. In places, the river is barely wider than a canoe and portaging is sometimes necessary, depending on water levels, which can fluctuate rapidly depending on rain and snow melt.

After a quick paddling tutorial, we donned our lifejackets and set sail. Within 15 minutes we’d crossed Alta Lake and were nearing the mouth of the river. That’s when I noticed people waving at us from a bridge. Seconds later we heard a siren – the kind that’s normally accompanied by a loud voice shouting “release the hounds”.

“Why are those people waving at us?” asked my wife from the bow.

The answer appeared over our left shoulders: canoeists, two to a boat and wearing helmets and numbered pinnies, launching from a nearby beach and paddling straight for us. Unsure whether the people on the bridge were waving us in or away, we opted to paddle for the river, full steam ahead.

At the bridge we made two discoveries. The first was that we’d need to portage a few yards because we’d arrived at a weir. The second was that we’d unwittingly joined a pivotal leg in GO Fest’s Great Snow-Earth-Water Race – a grueling six-stage competition involving skiing, biking, running and canoeing.

“We’re expecting two dozen canoes through here,” a young man with a radio told us. “You might want to sit out and let them through.”

It occurred to me that on a narrow, winding river with few passing lanes and a head start, we could actually try and win the race. Then my wife reminded me that this was supposed to be a cruise. She also said something about ethics.

So for 20 minutes we perched at a picnic table and watched contestants portage their canoes around the weir and back into the river, cheered on by locals. When everyone had passed us, we re-launched and quickly learned to adapt to the river’s ever-changing moods: turn too tightly and fast eddies would pull us into the reeds; lose concentration and we’d find ourselves turning sideways to the current.

But the lush wetlands and snowy peaks beyond the banks made up for the occasional brushes with low branches. Better yet, during the course of our 90-minute paddle we became minor celebrities to those who had turned out to cheer on the racers. Everyone loves plucky losers and despite not wearing race pinnies, we were assumed by many to be the last-place finishers in the canoe stage of the Great Snow-Earth-Water Race.

I still think we probably could have won it!

The River of Golden of Golden Dreams (Backroads Whistler – riverofgoldendreams.com or 604 932-3111) is just one of a multitude of adventures awaiting visitors to Whistler this summer. Here are five more.

Several runs atop Blackcomb and the Horstman Glacier are open for skiing and boarding until late July.

Several runs atop Blackcomb and the Horstman Glacier are open for skiing and boarding until late July.

Hit the Valley Trail: For a better perspective on Whistler’s surroundings get out of the village and onto the Whistler Valley Trail. More than 40 kilometres of paved trail and boardwalks connect Whistler’s lakes, parks and neighbourhoods. The trail is suitable for bikes, rollerbladers, joggers, walkers and well-behaved pets. Whistler.com offers more information on making the most of the Valley Trail, including a blog on the trail’s “six perfect spots”.

Shred the Park: Valley Trail offers a benign cycling experience and cross-country cyclists will find more than 500 kilometres miles of single track around Whistler. The Whistler Bike Park though condenses the best of Whistler’s downhill for all levels of mountain biker. Ride the lift up and take your pick of alpine view trails, banked cruisers through the forest, tight, winding single track and – for the experts – steep rock faces. Whistler Bike Park offers numerous ticket deals, including some with rentals, and accommodation packages. More information is at whistlerblackcomb.com.

Buckle up and ride the Elaho! Eric Beckstead photo

Buckle up and ride the Elaho! Eric Beckstead photo

Ride the river(s): If paddling the River of Golden Dreams is too tame for you, consider whitewater rafting either of the Green, Lower Cheakamus, Elaho or Squamish rivers. A range of half-day and full-day tours are available from Whistler, (whistler.com/rafting) or from the Sunwolf Centre in Brackendale near Squamish (sunwolf.net/rafting).

Fly by the seat of your pants! The most exciting thing I’ve ever done in Whistler is ziplining at Cougar Mountain, just north of Whistler. Superfly Ziplines (superflyziplines.com) runs Canada’s longest, fastest, highest ziplines where speeds of more than 100 km/h are made possible by runs well over a kilometer long, 200 metres off the ground. Strap into a paragliding-style harness, attach to half an inch of galvanized steel with a trolley rig and prepare to fly! Ziptrek Ecotours (ziptrek.com) combines similar thrills above Fitzsimmons Creek with a strong environmental ethos.

Ziplining at Cougar Mountain, just north of Whistler.

Ziplining at Cougar Mountain, just north of Whistler.

Ski in a T-shirt: For all the great winter skiing at Whistler, the novelty of descending Horstman Glacier while wearing a T-shirt in July is hard to beat. Until late July, two or three runs, plus the terrain park remain open atop Blackcomb where lunch on the deck of the Horstman Hut is a must.

* For details of summer accommodation packages, visit fourseasonswhistler.com

inukshuk-Neville Judd

Teens gone wild: An adolescent rite of passage in Whistler

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Hanging by threads, suspended 60 feet up between two Douglas Firs, my mind wanders to the Okiek tribes people of Kenya.

When their kids reach adolescence they are ceremonially circumcised and then secluded from adults for four to 24 weeks.

Social services would probably take a dim view of that here. And it wouldn’t fly with my son Ryan, 13 today and exuding adolescence from his gravity-defying hair right down to his boxers, proudly hoisted above his gravity-defying jeans.

Instead we’re in Whistler with Raven and Cyrus, two of Ryan’s adolescent friends, in search of adventure.

The Birthday Boy in his element.

We found it yesterday on the trails of Whistler Mountain Bike Park. After turning my back on mountain biking years ago, I finally realized what I had been missing: a full-suspension bike with shocks to absorb the worst Whistler could throw at me.

Our guide Mike Johnstone broke us in gently in the aptly named Easy Does It trail, advising us on the basics of braking, cornering and trail etiquette. He also chided the birthday boy for tailgating!

Pretty soon we were launching our bikes into the berms of B-Line and bouncing our way down Crank It Up. And while other bikers were few and far between, we spotted eight bears — the closest all but 20 feet away.

We stopped to watch the experts hurtling down A-Line, eight kilometres of drops, tables and more than 100 berms, and one of the busiest bike trails in North America, according to Johnstone.

We had to talk Cyrus out of trying A-Line, but then I think we all shared a feeling of invincibility by day’s end.

But that was yesterday, back when gravity was my friend.

Today, hanging high above the forest floor, I’m feeling anything but invincible.

“Are you OK, Dad,” asks Ryan thoughtfully from the safety of a wooden platform.

“Don’t show us up,” says Raven, who’s on a fast track to walking home from Whistler.

I say nothing, preferring instead to focus my energy on the task at hand: Walking across a series of spinning balls each hanging from two ropes. My two orange carabiners — a mountaineer’s best friend — are clipped on to an orange wire above me. The orange wire connects the trees, ensuring I at least won’t die on my son’s birthday should my feet slip off the balls.

Orange wire is an important part of WildPlay, an outdoor playground set on Cougar Mountain, 15 minutes north of Whistler Village. Zoom Zip Lines and Monkido aerial courses make for a full day of adventure and, judging by my aching wrists and tender armpits, a full body workout.

Zipliners at WildPlay reach speeds of up to 100 km/h.

Monkido is an obstacle course elevated among the trees and comprises increasingly difficult challenges, from a simple tight-rope walk to Tarzan swings, mini zip-lines, scramble nets, swinging logs and those infuriating spinning balls. From platform to platform, one challenge ends and another begins, with the adventurer continuously reattaching the orange carabiners to the orange safety wire. Preservation instincts make it unlikely you’d forget to reattach, but a WildPlay guide makes sure you don’t while yelling encouragement.

By the time I complete my graceless navigation of the slippery balls the boys have moved on. I’m congratulating myself when I hear Cyrus shout: “How the heck are we supposed to do this?”

This doesn’t bode well. Cyrus may well have been a monkey in a previous life and has been whipping through the challenges.

Through the trees I see Cyrus on his hands and knees crawling a la Spiderman on two parallel wires.

“Just loop your ankles around the wires and start crawling,” our guide Katie tells me with just a hint of reassurance. There’s nowhere to look but down as I inch across, trying to ignore the strain on my knees and the sunglasses about to fall off my face. The Mission Impossible theme tune pops into my head. This must happen to Tom Cruise all the time.

Mercifully it’s a short crossing.

It takes about 90 minutes to complete the course and the teenage testosterone is almost palpable at the finish. The adrenaline kicks in moments later on WildPlay’s Zoom Zip Lines tour.

While Monkido demands physical and mental agility, zip-lining is just a flat-out thrill ride. On a course of five dual zip lines, the longest is the aptly named Godzilla. Four hundred metres up and 1,500 metres long, Godzilla spans two mountains. It descends 200 metres from start to finish, propelling riders in paragliding harnesses at speeds in excess of 100 kilometres per hour.

It’s a bit like bungee jumping, but with a destination and a lot more screaming.

After riding Godzilla, the boys appear momentarily speechless.

“Oh my God,” offers Cyrus.

“I think I may have swallowed a bug,” says Raven.

“That’s the most fun thing I’ve ever done,” says Ryan.

“Let’s do it again,” I think to myself.

By the fifth and final ride back to base, we are pros at angling our bodies like torpedoes to maximize speed, or making like a starfish with arms and legs out to slow down. We have screamed at each other in tandem on our way down and marveled at the loud but cushioned impact on landing.

At no point do any of us dwell on the fact that we have entrusted out lives to half an inch of galvanized steel and the immutable laws of physics.

Well, perhaps I did a little bit.

“That was the best birthday, ever,” Ryan tells me on the way home.

Mine, too, son.

If you go:

We stayed in Whistler Creekside at Legends, which offers two-night packages, including a Peak 2 Peak sightseeing pass, for $79 per person, per night. Visit www.legendswhistler.com or call 1 866 385-0611 for details. For other accommodation deals, visit www.whistlerblackcomb.com or call 1 888 403-4727.

WildPlay operates parks in Whistler, Maple Ridge, Nanaimo and Victoria. For more information, visit www.wildplay.com or call 1 888 668-7874.

Whistler Mountain Bike Park offers numerous ticket deals, some of which are combined with hotel packages. Visit www.whistlerbike.com or call 1866 218-9690 for more details.

Written by nevjudd

December 7, 2011 at 11:39 pm